Home | BaltimoreBrew.com
Business & Developmentby Ed Gunts4:10 pmJan 11, 20160

Biggest development since the Inner Harbor coming – to a city where developers now drive the planning

Kevin Plank and Sagamore pledge public access to the waterfront at Port Covington, but can an increasingly passive city government hold the Under Armour CEO to his promise? ANALYSIS

Above: Baltimore’s southern waterfront is about to undergo massive redevelopment. Shown here: West Covington Park, on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s 20-year master plan for redeveloping Port Covington won high marks last week for creative thinking and for keeping a high percentage of land in the public realm.

But what needs to happen to make sure that the enlightened principles that guided the planning process continue to guide the actual development?

The short answer: Baltimore needs to take a hard look at a troubling trend:

Over the past 50 years, since waterfront redevelopment as a strategy to lift Baltimore was first implemented in a comprehensive way, city government has increasingly handed over leadership of the planning process to private developers and non-public entities such as the Downtown Partnership.

The result may please the developers, but it means the city has become more reactive when it should be proactive, allowing the developers to make decisions early in the process that have major implications for the public in the future.

Plans, Without Legal Authority

The plan by Plank’s real estate arm, Sagamore Development Company, was especially praised last week because it calls for continuous public access all along the shoreline of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

That waterfront access mantra was a guiding principle of the Inner Harbor renewal plan and a large part of what made it such a success.

But long before Plank started buying property, there were questions about whether that same principle would be applied to the Middle Branch, which has been called Baltimore’s second Inner Harbor. Do city leaders have the political will to insist on continuous public access to the waterfront at this location?

The city has adopted two master plans recommending public access along the Middle Branch waterfront, but they are basically guides with no legal authority to make it a reality.

Sagamore’s Port Covington plan keeps the idea on the table as a goal. But it also raises questions about how the goal can be realized – and what steps the city should take to make that happen.

Under Armour's development company released depictions of the area near the company's future Port Covington headquarters. (Rendering: Sagamore Development Company)

Kevin Plank’s development company released depictions of the area near the company’s future Port Covington headquarters. (Rendering: Sagamore Development Company)

The plan calls for construction of up to 13 million square feet of space on 266 acres, including a new world headquarters campus for Under Armour on 50 acres on a peninsula at the center of the property. The rest of the development is a mix of residences, offices, shops, restaurants, work spaces, maker spaces, public parks, squares, streets and promenades.

Sagamore owns 161 of those 266 acres. The rest is either controlled by the city or by various private owners, including some who have been there for years.

Even the city officials effusively welcoming Under Armour’s vision acknowledge the inherent complexity and difficulties.

“It’s very exciting,” city planning director Tom Stosur said Thursday at the plan’s unveiling. “It’s also a huge challenge to try to get it right for the long term.”

Inner Harbor vs. Port Covington

To appreciate the challenges that lie ahead for both Sagamore and the city, it helps to understand how planning and development work in Baltimore today compared to the way they worked when the Inner Harbor was being planned half a century ago.

The Inner Harbor planning process started in 1963, when Mayor Theodore McKeldin called in his inaugural speech for revitalization of the city’s waterfront. The first sections of the Inner Harbor to be renewed, Inner Harbor I and Inner Harbor West, covered 250 acres centered on Pratt and Light streets. Before that, the largest downtown redevelopment project was Charles Center at 33 acres.

With 266 acres and up to 13 million square feet, Port Covington is the largest single development in Baltimore since the Inner Harbor and one of the largest on the East Coast. It involves more land than Harbor East, Harbor Point, Harbor View, Harborplace, EBDI and Canton Crossing combined.

But here is the chief difference between the Inner Harbor and Port Covington.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, the city owned most of the land for the first phases of the Inner Harbor renewal. Much of it was acquired by eminent domain with the help of city, state and federal funds available at that time.

The city hired a nationally respected urban design firm, Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd, (now WRT) to prepare a master plan to guide development of the 250 acres.

Planners integrated the new Inner Harbor into the existing Baltimore downtown. (Photo by Rosalie Shen)

Planners integrated the new Inner Harbor into the existing Baltimore downtown. (Photo by Rosie Shen)

The WRT plan recommended what uses should be on the land, how tall and far apart the new buildings should be, and how far they should be set back from the street. It sculpted a new skyline for Baltimore.

Where existing buildings were worth keeping, such as the McCormick spice factory and the News American newspaper plant, the plan made them part of the composition. It also recommended how to stitch this renewal area back into the rest of the city, like a new heart in an old body.

Besides designing buildings and public spaces, the WRT plan called for all of the land on the Inner Harbor shoreline to be open and accessible to the public, not closed off or privatized in any way. It set aside 33 acres around the Inner Harbor basin as a public park. WRT’s team also designed all the bulkheads and promenades that provide access to the waterfront parkland.

When Baltimore had Clout

Baltimore had the clout to make it all happen according to the master plan because it largely owned the property that was targeted for development. The city’s development arm, Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc., sought bids for different parcels and awarded property only to developers who agreed to adhere to the “standards and controls” of the master plan.

Even mighty developers such as the Rouse Company, builder of the Harborplace pavilions, had to follow the city’s terms if they wanted to develop land in the Inner Harbor.

Visitors braved the cold at Baltimore's Inner Harbor today. (Photo by Rosie Shen)

Visitors braved the cold at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor today. (Photo by Rosie Shen)

The city’s development agency largely determined the order and pacing of land sales, never putting out so much land at once that there would be a glut of office space on the market. The strategy worked well for many years and helped increase the city’s tax base.

Eventually, the principles that worked at the Inner Harbor were extended eastward to Canton. That’s largely a testament to the strong political will to make it happen on the part of the city’s leaders, including Mayor William Donald Schaefer, former city planning director Larry Reich and former housing commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr.

Private Owners and Their Planners

The amount of land in question today on the Middle Branch is very much the same as back then: 266 acres at Port Covington compared to 250 at the Inner Harbor.

Other than that, however, the situation is almost completely reversed.

The city is not so obviously in control the way it was with the Inner Harbor, because it doesn’t own the bulk of the land. In fact, in 2004 it sold off much of the land it had, including the former City Garage on Dickman Street.

Now a private business, Sagamore, owns most of the land and is taking the lead on setting the agenda. That doesn’t mean the city can’t still get what it wants for the public at large, including continuous public access to the water’s edge. But it has to go about it in a different way.

Since the Inner Harbor renewal was launched, the city’s planning process has changed significantly. Baltimore has seen sizable tracts developed along the waterfront in recent years, but the city government has not initiated the planning effort the way it did for Charles Center and the Inner Harbor.

The city worked jointly with Michael Silver and then John Paterakis to develop a plan for Inner Harbor East. The original planning team included the noted urban designer Stanton Eckstut, and the plan was inspired by Battery Park City in Manhattan.

After-the-Fact Review 

After that, the city has played less of a role in master-planning waterfront development.

For the former Allied Signal brownfield site (now known as Harbor Point), Allied Signal, Paterakis and Michael Beatty hired consultants to draw up plans and then they were adopted by the city as a planned unit development.

For Canton Crossing, too, the land owners have taken the initiative to design a master plan for their property and then sought to have it accepted by the city. It is the opposite of the way it happened at the Inner Harbor.

In effect, the city has largely abrogated its role as the leader in the planning process and become more of a follower. City officials say the government doesn’t have the funds it had in the 1970s to launch large-scale planning exercises. They say they are content to let the private sector and the market take the lead in deciding what should be built and then approve the plan they come up with or adjust it if necessary.

This is how a non-public entity such as the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has come to make plans to replace the city-owned McKeldin Fountain. Even Rash Field on the Inner Harbor’s south shore, created as part of the Inner Harbor master plan, is now being redesigned by the private Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, after previous plans by the Baltimore Development Corp. went nowhere.

Fox in Charge of the Henhouse?

To some, this reversed pattern is tantamount to putting the fox in charge of the hen house. They say developers are always going to draw up plans that benefit themselves, not necessarily the public at large.

City officials, accountable to citizens, would be more likely to have a broader, more objective and more inclusive perspective, they argue.

In an article about the Port Covington plan for his Community Architect blog, local architect Klaus Philipsen lamented that the city is not in charge of the planning process at Port Covington and is forced to settle on reviewing someone else’s plan.

At Port Covington, “the city’s planning department is finally relinquishing all pretense to be the master planner for Baltimore,” Philipsen wrote.

“When planning director [Tom] Stosur concludes that he ‘can’t imagine a more auspicious start to one of the greatest development opportunities the city ever had,’ and kindly asks the developer to be inclusive and allow diversity, he admits that he not only doesn’t sit in the driver’s seat, he may not even be in the car,” Philipsen said.

In a sense, Sagamore’s project represents the ultimate next step in the evolution of large-scale waterfront planning in Baltimore.

It is a case where a private developer, not the city, is leading the planning effort. Moreover, this is a company that has no track record of working at this scale before, or really much at all.

But that’s not the most significant new wrinkle.

Multiple Landowners

What’s even more relevant is that the Port Covington planning effort involves land that is owned not just by the developer leading the process, but also land that is owned and occupied by other companies that were in place long before Sagamore came on the scene.

That is considerably different from the case of Harbor Point and Canton Crossing, where the developers are essentially making plans for their own holdings – but no one else’s.

Sagamore owns 161 of the 266 acres for which it is making recommendations. In many ways the checkerboard makeup of land ownership is more like the original Inner Harbor master planning exercise, except this time a private entity is in charge and not the city.

As a result, there are limits to what Sagamore’s plan for Port Covington can achieve on its own, as opposed to what the city’s Inner Harbor plan could achieve.

Sagamore can certainly make recommendations for the entire Port Covington shoreline and apply its master plan to the 161 acres it owns. But Sagamore cannot force other property owners to follow its plan the way the city could at the Inner Harbor – unless it buys their properties or gets the Planning Commission to adopt its plan as city policy.

That is largely why the Downtown Partnership is running into opposition with the McKeldin Fountain. The city Planning Commission has never officially adopted the Inner Harbor 2.0 master plan that calls for the fountain to be demolished; it was prepared largely by the Greater Baltimore Committee and never voted on by the Planning Commission.

Limits to Acquisition

There are limits to the amount of land even Sagamore can acquire.

It was fortunate to be able to buy the 6.7 acre City Garage site for $1.5 million, after another developer ran into financial troubles and the city declined to step in. It is also fortunate to be able to use some land owned by the National Aquarium.

A fisherman who has been coming to Ferry Bar Park on the Middle Branch for the past 40 years. (Photo by Alisha Jumon)

A fisherman who has been coming to Ferry Bar Park on the Middle Branch for the past 40 years. (Photo by Alisha Jumon)

But it has not been able to gain control of two city parks in the Port Covington footprint. And it probably can no longer buy land at below market or even market rates now that word is out about its project.

As word spreads, people tend to seek more money for their properties than they’re worth.

Developer Bill Struever saw this in Charles Village, when a homeowner on St. Paul Street wanted $1 million for a plain middle of the block row house that Struever needed to assemble a larger development parcel. The homeowner got the million. Plank can’t afford to be held up the way Struever was in Charles Village.


YESTERDAY: Plank pledges continuous public access to the waterfront at Port Covington

NEXT in the series: How the city can better steer the process

Most Popular